In the perilous days of antiquity, palace sentries greeted approaching strangers with a sternly uttered, “Halt! Who goes there?” In today’s hypercompetitive business world, the sentry is more likely to be a vigilant secretary who politely inquires, “May I ask who’s calling?” Modern manners aside, a contemporary defender like the executive assistant is as ferociously territorial as his or her ancient counterparts. Indeed, secretaries and other gatekeepers can be the one hurdle standing between you, your executive target and that career-boosting new account. So what’s a B-to-B marketer to do?
Here’s a thought: Build a Trojan horse. Think about it — what if you could create a marketing package so clever that the gatekeepers would vet your doohickey, and then walk it into the CEO’s office with their tacit blessing. Cool, right?
That’s what Will Pringle did. A marketing demand generation vice president for the IBM subsidiary Netezza (pronounced net-eezah), Pringle designed an intriguing marketing campaign that relied on the popularity of another device: a highly coveted MP3 player. Toward his goal of showcasing the value and innovation of Netezza’s data storage appliances, Pringle shipped attractively packaged MP3 players to more than 250 tech execs nationwide. Loaded with personalized content designed to emulate the feel of a sales pitch meeting, the branded Netezza players featured custom videos and other virtual goodies explaining how the analytics appliance provider could help recipients meet their business objectives. The effort, says Pringle, was designed to provide a “high-touch” experience to the prospect.
IBM chose to employ the attention grabbing power of direct mail to boost business. “I usually describe this as the ‘silver bullet’ campaign,” Pringle says of the Netezza initiative. “This direct mail piece is the one bullet that you slide into your gun when you really need to talk to the decision maker.”
How to build a Trojan horse
Purchased by IBM in 2010, Netezza creates big data analytics appliances designed to make advanced analytics simpler, faster and more accessible. Though its clientele includes numerous big brands, Netezza’s tremendous reach and influence is perhaps best illustrated by another one of its top customers, Catalina Marketing. When most Americans scan their supermarket rewards cards, their purchase info is relayed to Catalina, which collects shopping data on more than 75 percent of American shoppers. “They have to calculate, track and store more than 300 million different retail transactions every week,” Pringle says of Catalina. “The foundation of their data warehouse environment is the Netezza solution, which supports their retail direct online customer loyalty application, in-store coupon delivery and health resources business.”
With its impressive client list and the prestige derived from having joined the IBM corporate family, Netezza was understandably eager to ratchet up its marketing efforts. So in 2010, Pringle asked members of the Netezza sales team to articulate their absolute ultimate wish. More than anything, they wanted meetings with C-level executives at their target accounts. So Pringle and his team began to brainstorm about how they could capture their attention.
“We thought, ‘What could we do with the C-suite that would provide them value and entice them to respond?’” Pringle recalls. “We narrowed that down to, ‘How do you talk to the CEO, CIO or CMO?’”
Eventually, Pringle and his team came up with the idea of shipping MP3 devices that featured apps designed to create a sales meeting experience. Pringle tingled at the possibilities. “I thought it would be the ultimate direct mail piece if we could immediately catch the attention of C-level executives,” he says. “What if the recipient powered the MP3 player up and the first thing they experienced was a customized video that addressed them by name? The more I thought and penciled everything out, the more excited I became.”
While his Netezza sales reps created dream lists of top-priority executives, Pringle rolled up his sleeves and began executing. First, he contacted a noted manufacturer to help create devices that would accommodate exclusive Netezza content. “We couldn’t just take a store bought device and redo the operating system on it,” Pringle explains. “We had to talk to the company that created the device and license the option to change the operating system. Ultimately, we needed the creator’s blessing, and fortunately we got it.”
After securing the software and codes to alter 100 of the gadgets, Pringle and his teammates then served up a cornucopia of personalized content. He rounded up IBM data specialists and general managers — sectors ranging from retail to healthcare to financial services — and had them record personalized video messages for targeted executives. “For instance, our financial services general manager is Jamie Lynch,” Pringle offers. “When our targeted CIO activates her MP3 player, she is greeted by a message from Jamie. The idea is that he is talking to the executive and addressing her business challenges personally and directly.”
The intro video was just the beginning. Each MP3 player was custom tailored. The music application was loaded with classic rock tunes all designed to remind recipients of Netezza’s tremendous speed and simplicity. For the photos application, Pringle created close-up pictures of Netezza appliances. He even loaded directions to the recipient’s nearest IBM office into the map app. “We customized every app on it,” Pringle says. “We wanted prospects to smile and think, ‘Wow, these guys really thought this through!’”
Breaching the gates
Finally, in August 2010, curious cylindrical mailers appeared on the desks of executive administrators nationwide. Save for United States Postal Service® labeling and a Netezza “N” logo on the cylinder’s plastic cap, by design the mailers boasted no overt promotional messages.
When exec admins opened the packages, they discovered yet another cylinder inside. Made of clear, pliable Plexiglas, the inner cylinder revealed the package’s entire contents, including the MP3 player, a cover letter and a business card from IBM Netezza general managers. The face of the MP3 device featured a sticker with a color photo of a Netezza analytics appliance that read, “It’s time you got in touch with Netezza.”
Pringle says there was logic behind the relatively mysterious outer packaging and its revealing inner counterpart. “To pique curiosity and to get it from the mailroom to the exec admin, we decided on packaging that didn’t show what was inside,” Pringle says. “When they pulled that MP3 player out, we knew it would shine and show the true value of our product.”
The mailers were vetted by the targets’ respective exec admins before being passed along to the executives themselves. And once they turned on the devices, the executives were treated to a personalized digital sales experience: Following the intro pitch video, another screen pops up that is customized for the sector the targeted CIO works in (e.g., retail, healthcare, etc). Once the intro video closes, many recipients were taken to custom Netezza case study video presentations in that industry.
A few days after the initial packages were shipped, Pringle’s team started putting in calls to his target C-level executives. “Within the next two to three weeks, we secured seven meetings out of 15 — an almost 50-percent success rate,” Pringle says. “In many cases, we had attempted to meet with these companies for years, and this was the piece that opened the door.”
“Executives have called our GMs and said, ‘Hey, I got your MP3 player,’ and ‘If you care enough to produce this mailer, then I’d love to take the time to hear how Netezza/IBM can help my business.’”
What we learned
Thus far, the Netezza campaign has achieved a 35-percent response rate, translating to approximately $30 million in new business. According to Pringle, it stands as the single most effective campaign in Netezza’s history. As of Q1 2012, the campaign cost Netezza about $200,000. Pringle says the investment has been well worth it. “When you’re talking about sending people unsolicited thousand-dollar packages in the mail, it sounds a bit silly,” Pringle says. “But so far we’ve gotten a 150-times return on our investment, and that’s not so silly. This concept resulted in the highest ROI of any campaign that I’ve ever worked on.”
Pringle contributes the campaign’s success to a variety of factors, not the least of which is the high-touch experience embodied by the mailers. Indeed, many recipients can’t help but be impressed by how Netezza imaginatively leveraged one of the world’s best-known consumer technology companies to create a forward-thinking marketing/sales experience.
The MP3 player direct mail campaign has been such a success that it’s an ongoing component of the Netezza marketing mix, which also includes e-mail, phone calls, webinars and trade show sponsorships, among other campaigns. But of all the options on the Netezza marketing menu, Pringle says the campaign is the one he employs when he wants to dramatically increase the likelihood of hooking a big fish. “This campaign has a specific use,” Pringle explains. “It’s the campaign we use when we want to capture the attention a C-level executive whose organization we can really help.”
The rewarding lesson of the initiative is clear, says Pringle: “Go with your instincts. Think differently. One simple idea can generate millions of dollars in revenue for your business. So stay confident and keep pushing the envelope.”B-to-B Marketing, ROI, Strategy